Why Aren’t Audiences Stupid? (Andy Version)

I tried to post this as a comment over at HuffPo, but it was too long. So here goes:

“This is a scary trend.” – Really?

God forbid that the actual audience should have a a place to voice their response to a work of art. But maybe that should be restricted to talkbacks? I’ve always believed that art encourages questions whereas entertainment confirms what we already know. The magic of live performance – even the most traditional forms – is that the audience is never really a passive watcher – they are engaged and their response informs the performance. The internet as a forum for authentic feedback and reaction is vital to the growth, development and continued relevancy of the discipline.

As to Kaiser’s lament about the death of criticism – if the commercial media are no longer able or willing to subsidize arts coverage (how many cities actually have a “local professional critic” anymore?) and Kaiser feels that criticism is an essential part of the arts ecology, then why haven’t foundations stepped in to support the field? I’ve run Culturebot.org, since December 2003. Over the past eight years I have met with numerous funders who express their admiration and appreciation of what I do but are unable or unwilling to provide funding. The Andy Warhol Foundation supports visual arts writing including blogs – artfagcity.com has received several large grants – but there is no support for performing arts writers and critics. Because the visual arts world is in the business of creating objects or sale, it recognizes the importance of criticism and writing to creating perceived value around art. The performance world has yet to glom onto that and as a result the work continues to be undervalued.

At Culturebot.org we have provided many, many artists with their first reviews and exposure, we have opened a window into the sometimes murky and non-transparent world of contemporary performance – and the process behind making the work. We have fostered dialogue and become an important resource for curators, presenters, artists and aficionados. Not to mention the support we’ve been able to give aspiring writers and critics by giving them access to artists, performances and administrators, a forum for honing their voice and an opportunity to foster discussion. And we do it for free, because we care about the arts and we want to participate.

Are we amateurs? No. Kaiser’s derogatory use of the term indicates a startling lack of respect for audience members and a lack of knowledge about the composition of that audience. He might be surprised to learn how many people in the audience actually know what they are talking about. Not everyone can afford to get a Master’s in arts admin, criticism, dance, theater, etc. only to come into a job market where your best option is a $30K/year, 60hr/wk job in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Much less take time off from their life to study with Kaiser in the Kennedy Center Fellowship for Arts Management. Thus the established arts infrastructure tends to skew to people who are either willing to live penuriously or have other resources to draw on.

Even fewer people can make a living as an artist.

So the audience for the arts – and the people who are passionate enough to frequent cultural institutions, comment on their sites or start their own blogs – are frequently educated, knowledgeable, committed individuals who, you know, have actual jobs. They are artists and former artists, they are friends and families of artists, they are people who grew up or into an appreciation of the arts for any number of reasons but because of the necessities of making a living are relegated to “amateur” status. Sure there are some ill-informed writers and commenters out there, but as I’ve watched arts writing on the internet evolve over the past eight years I’ve been surprised by the quality of writing, the knowledge of the writers and the vitality of the discussion.

It is, frequently, the programmers and the arts institutions that are completely out of touch with audiences, that make no effort to actually engage audience and communities in the process of making art or curating seasons. The infrastructure is not transparent or responsive to the community. Structured talkbacks are insufficient and if you are a presenter who produces challenging work, you should probably do some kind of humanities program that contextualizes what is being presented, offering the audience a 360-degree view, rather than just demanding that they submit to your aesthetic preferences. This doesn’t happen. Most arts institutions just present what they present as if it was a gift from on high and expect us to appreciate their refined taste and sensibilities. Guess what? Most of us went to college, too! Most of us read, see work, are informed about current events and aesthetic engagement with the world at large, most of us have been art-makers, or writers, or supporters at any number of levels and our opinions are not only important – they’re kind of the only opinions that matter. After all, we’re the audience. And if a tree falls onstage and no-one is there to see it, is it performance?

Kaiser’s article reflects how out of touch many in the arts establishment are with the reality on the ground – it is sad and frustrating. Considering how much influence he has it is a shame that he is so reactionary and ill-informed, so unwilling to affect actual change and innovation.

12 thoughts on “Why Aren’t Audiences Stupid? (Andy Version)”

  1. aaron says:

    Great post, Andy. Also, not having read Kaiser's piece yet, does she lament the fact that HuffPo doesn't pay it's writers?

  2. Jeremy M. Barker says:

    Heh. The irony of that post appearing on HuffPo has been brought up elsewhere.

  3. Ken Foster says:

    Andy thanks for taking this on so directly. It astounds me that Kaiser has somehow become the "guru" of arts administration, complete with his own post graduate program that is rapidly becoming the "gold standard" both here and abroad. While there are some aspects of what he has to say that are positive, his "one size fits all" approach based on the Kennedy Center model is the real scary thing here, as is the way that both new and experienced arts administrators are lapping it up as gospel truth.

    As you correctly point out, Kaiser posits a point of view that once worked for a rapidly disappearing world of huge budgets, mega rich (mostly white) donors and an aging, also mostly white, population that represents the past not the future of the arts in America, including this pathetic desire for "critics" to be the "experts" who tell us what is worth seeing, worth making and worth keeping and what isn't. The red herring of "dumbing down the art to meet the demands of the great unwashed audience" is meant to frighten us and to maintain and strengthen the grip of the power elite on the vast amount of resources shoveled directly to organizations designed to sustain the status quo and with it their privileged positions (note please the recent report of the Center for Responsible Philanthropy which confirms what we already know about where the money is going – to the biggest, whitest institutions.)

    In 21st century America, art is incredibly and wonderfully diverse in its form, structure and content. It is tearing down the 19th century paradigms of "excellence" that have grown outdated and irrelevant for all but the tiniest minority of Americans. Artists today are working with fewer resources than ever before and still producing art that matters – art that is more challenging, more thrilling, more transformative and more relevant than people like Kasier could possibly appreciate. And, as you also point out, there is a vast, complex and vital dialogue occurring about contemporary art in the blogs, networks and social media sites that is adding to, explaining, contextualizing and revitalizing the contemporary art discourse. What is to fear in that except loss of privilege and power for those like Kaiser who have been running things for far too long?

    It is long past time that arts administrators STEP UP and become as innovative, creative, dynamic and transformative in their work as artists are about new ways of working that matter in 21st century America. I'm happy to say that I see signs of that happening in San Francisco and elsewhere, where young arts administrators are rewriting the rules for a new world, as they should. As they must! Leave Mr. Kaiser with the dinosaurs he admires so much.

  4. Alexis Clements says:

    It's also worth noting that the Kennedy Center's programming has been flailing wildly to maintain audiences. It seems clear to me that a large part of Kaiser's motivation in writing that piece is to justify his ill-advised choices via mythic "critics" who would thumps-up weak, at best, programming. Members of my own family who were subscribers to the Kennedy Center finally gave up their subscriptions because they were sick of being pandered to. When you belittle your audiences through your programming and your "amateur" blog posts, they don't need to spend time talking about your bad choices, they express their opinions with their ticket purchases, or lack thereof. Those same family members of mine are now happily subscribed to the George Mason University Center for the Arts where a diverse program of artists are presented at a fraction of the cost of Kennedy Center subscriptions and with a real intention to expose audiences to both new and important work.

    I'd also like to raise the point that people like myself, who are both practicing artists and arts journalists, are deeply committed to using our journalism (wherever it is published) to open up discussions around the work and are completely and utterly disinterested in the mainstream criticism that closes down conversations around art and its value. The best arts journalism opens work up to audiences and makes room for them to decide for themselves what they like. Arts journalism is a powerful form of advocacy for the arts, as Andy gets at here. Kaiser's perspective represents a desire for arts journalism to serve instead as legitimacy for a privileged few. He couldn't pay me enough to begin to do that work.

    My feeling, he should get a unpaid internship with Molly Smith over at Arena Stage. A little humility would do him a hell of a lot of good and he could learn a lot from an organization more interested in meeting the future than fighting against it.

    1. Jeremy M. Barker says:

      "My feeling, he should get a unpaid internship with Molly Smith over at Arena Stage. A little humility would do him a hell of a lot of good and he could learn a lot from an organization more interested in meeting the future than fighting against it. "

      Ditto. You know, Arena just had to drop two shows from its season because it lost a grant worth less than Kaiser's annual salary. Just sayin'.

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  9. richard kooyman says:

    I'm not a fan of Kaiser's Devos Institute of art funded by the Koch Brothers of the midwest the evangelical Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation but one should be careful in expounding the virtues of "the public" without defining what public you are talking about. If you talking about the Devos Foundation, Dick Devos who ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Michigan ran on a campaign of turning over everything basically to the will of the people. They even went as far as funding the world's largest "ArtPrize" in Grand Rapids ,Michigan where $450,000 in prize money is award solely on public opinion. Well guess what happened, this year the top prize of $250,000 went to a 13ft tall mosaic of Jesus on the Cross. Don't give the keys to the car to the "voice" of the people unless you know how well they actually can drive.

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